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Recently six teenage girls from Afghanistan arrived in Washington DC for the FIRST Global robotics challenge, a competition for 15- to 18-year-olds featuring teams from 157 countries. Due to a delay in the shipment of their kit, the girls had only two weeks to build and program their robot, compared to the four months that some teams had. While the girls did not place in the top ranks amongst their competitors, they placed higher than teams from many more advantaged countries including the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. They also received acclaim for the bravery and perseverance that brought these girls to Washington DC.
The Afghan team’s journey almost did not happen. When preparing for the competition, they applied for visas to the United States, but were denied visas not once, but twice. The girls were told that they would have to compete virtually from Afghanistan. Amidst international outcry, the U.S. State Department relented and granted the girls visas. While the State Department has not commented on why the girls’ visas were denied, it’s hard to imagine that their country of origin and Muslim faith had no influence on the decision. The team from Gambia also faced visa troubles, although they too were eventually granted visas.
With the international media coverage the Afghan girls’ struggles had received, the team was given celebrity welcome when they arrived at the competition. Fellow contestants congratulated them and sought them out for autographs. At the conclusion of the competition, the girls were given a silver medal for courage.
While it’s wonderful that the girls were able to compete with the rest of the contestants, we cannot let the story’s conclusion drive complacency. Already, in the wake of the state department’s reversal, media outlets have glossed over the role that the U.S. played in the girls’ plight. Some have gone as far as to give Trump some credit for the outcome, the same man who has called for a total ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and who produced the regressive immigration and travel ban targeting individuals from six Muslim majority countries.
It is not as though hearing the girls’ plight has caused him to reevaluate his stance on Muslims. Intervening on their behalf was the politically expedient move. To most Americans, teenage girls trying to compete in a robotics competition don’t seem like a major threat to national security. By intervening, Trump gets to be the white knight, rushing in to usher these girls into the land of opportunity. One instance of politically advantageous human decency cannot erase the wrongs he has perpetuated and continues to perpetuate against Muslims.
Instead of using this instance to praise Trump, we should be using this moment to challenge the narrative he has constructed around Muslims being dangerous extremists. Although he has called for a total ban on Muslims entering the U.S., he was willing to make an exception for these girls. If he truly believed that all Muslims from Muslim majority countries were a danger to the U.S., he would not have interceded on the girls’ behalf. The vast majority of Muslims seeking entry into the U.S. pose no threat to anyone. It is not okay to deny them because their stories don’t garner enough media attention to get Trump to allow them in. We cannot let him become the arbiter of who is worthy to enter this country.
The Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments on Trump’s immigration and travel ban this fall. While the Afghan team was not directly affected by the ban, the FIRST Global robotics competition featured teams from nations that could have been, like Team Hope, which consisted of Syrian refugees. Currently the U.S. hosts many international competitions and conferences, but, should the ban prevail, it will compromise our ability to continue to do so. If we cannot ensure that all participants are equally able to attend, we ought not to be allowed to host. It’s not just scholars and teen tech wizards who will suffer under the ban. It is perfectly ordinary people with ordinary, perhaps mundane motives for coming here. They have every bit as much a right as travelers from whiter, western nations to be here.